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Designing a Custom Font From Real Flowers

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Jul 19 2019

My father always told me the most beautiful and creative art in the world can be found in nature. Growing up in Korea, visiting botanical gardens was our family ritual—I even kept a journal where I picked leaves and flowers, and dried them in its pages. These memories and the spirit of nature helped me build my creative world.

My childhood journal, where I kept flowers and leaves from the gardens I visited with my family.

As an adult, it's been important to me to use my design skills to recognize how much my father and my time in nature helped shape who I am. In college, my thesis project “FLOA” was a tribute to flowers and my father (FLOA = flower + appa—“dad” in Korean.) It was a small flower garden with different sizes of flower pots filled with lilies, dandelions, and roses. Working on the project created a special moment for me and my dad.

That was the first time I created something to honor the impact my father and our time in nature had on me. Years later, at IDEO, I started working on a project to redesign flowerpot systems and plant care instructions for consumers. Through the design research process, I got to observe how people take care of thousands of plants, how they are nurtured, and how they travel to consumers. I started to feel like a flower doctor, figuring out how to create a flowerpot that would best help them grow. I wanted to communicate that message to others, that caring for flowers isn’t entirely unlike caring for our own human bodies. To share that message, I decided to create a font system that combines the visual styles of botanicals and x-ray imaging. It would be a tribute to my dad and the connection I feel to nature, and hopefully inspire others to feel that same connection.

Instead of relying on existing x-rays of flowers, I decided to use the flowers from my memories to make the font. I went back to the journal of flowers I’d kept for 20 years and scanned them to convert them into a digital format, then applied the x-ray effect and arranged them into an alphabet. I named the font Small Forest.

Here, I am holding a poster sharing the final Small Forest alphabet. This was a very meaningful moment for me.

Small Forest comes to life!

I then connected with my IDEO colleague Todd Vanderlin, who is a genius creative coder. He used the flower scans to create an interactive digital experience that allows people to draw with flowers, stems, and leaves. Lines drawn by the user turn into beautiful botanicals before their eyes.

The program does not use any fancy machine learning algorithms or computer vision techniques. Todd wanted me to choose the direction, orientation, and type of each flower, building my own library of botanicals.

The algorithm performs based on the way I designed and categorized the flowers.

The software starts by analyzing the line stroke, search for long continuous segments based on the change in angles. The segments then source flower parts based on their tags and configurations.

Segments of a line are matched to the sizes and shapes of the flowers.

The first test of the completed program.

When Todd showed me how he created the coding system, it was mind blowing. I felt like I was on a spaceship traveling to the future. We unveiled the digital experience at an event that IDEO Cambridge and MIT Media Lab hosted earlier this year called Future Fest, an interactive art show that invited guests to explore the interactions of art, technology, and humanity. I loved watching guests interact with the botanicals and create their own nature-inspired art.

Image by Jin Choi

My son Ethan interacting with Small Forest during the event. It was amazing to watch Ethan, who picks flowers and leaves wherever he goes, creating beautiful botanical art with only his fingertips.

Small Forest is a project that ties me to my dad and my childhood. But thanks to Todd, it became something much bigger—something that can delight others, and inspire them to take on art projects of their own. As you think about your own journey, don't forget to recognize the people and experiences that got you here, and to use your skills to create something that just might inspire someone else.

Special thanks to Todd Vanderlin for collaborating with me on this project.

  • Sophy Lee

    IDEO Alum, IDEO Cambridge
    Sophy brings together her skills in graphic design, art direction, conceptual thinking, and craft. Her notebooks are full of tangible, personal exploration—pen-and-ink illustration, watercolors, and photography. Ultimately, her poetic investigations find their way into refined typography and visual communications of all kinds.
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